If you head on over to the Metacritic page for Natural Selection 2, you might notice something strange. Of the seven reviews listed, only one is scored below an 80.
Also, it doesn't actually exist.
Last week, GameSpot reviews editor Kevin VanOrd pulled his site's review of Natural Selection 2. The review, scored 60/100 and written by a freelancer named Eric Neigher, had been eviscerated by readers and commenters who pointed out a number of mistakes—for example, the review said the recently-released indie game was $30, when it actually costs $25. Other errors involved the game's engine and load times.
But the original review is still on Metacritic. A big yellow 60 sits right on Natural Selection 2's front page, warning readers that "disappointing execution holds it back." Clicking "read full review" will take you to a broken link.
So why hasn't the review been replaced? I asked Metacritic head Marc Doyle, who told me that they have a one-shot policy for all reviews and all gaming outlets. (Kotaku is not listed on Metacritic, as we do not use review scores.)
"Yes, the critics we track know—and I spoke to the GameSpot team about this this week - that we only accept the first review and first score published for a given game," Doyle told me in an e-mail. "I'm explicit about this policy with every new publication we agree to track. It's a critic-protection measure, instituted in 2003 after I found that many publications had been pressured to raise review scores (or de-publish reviews) to satisfy outside influences. Our policy acted as a disincentive for these outside forces to apply that type of inappropriate pressure."
(Note: GameSpot and Metacritic are both owned by the same parent company, CBS Interactive.)
It's a policy that seems to be enforced with the best of intentions—just about every reviewer in the gaming industry has heard shady stories about publishers trying to get scores changed—but it doesn't account for situations like this, where a writer's mistakes could seriously impact the fate of a game. I asked GameSpot's VanOrd how he felt about this whole situation, but he wouldn't comment on the specifics. "The review had multiple factual inaccuracies that cast a shadow over the entire piece, so we chose to pull it and reassign, which is a rarity, of course," he told me.
"So what?" you might be asking. "Why does it matter what kind of review scores this game has on Metacritic? Aren't review scores just arbitrary anyway? You guys don't use them!"
For better or worse, Metacritic has become an important tool for people in the gaming industry; some publishers even use it to decide whether to give out bonuses, a practice I've criticized in the past. And studies have shown that a game's Metacritic score can have significant impact on its sales.
For an indie game like Natural Selection 2—a game made over the course of six years by a team of just seven people—one mediocre score could be catastrophic. (Although they seem to be doing okay, and Kotaku's Kate Cox had a ton of praise for the competitive game in our review.)
I asked Hugh Jeremy, community manager and jack-of-all-trades over at Natural Selection 2 developer Unknown Worlds, what the team thought of this whole situation.
"We fully respect Gamespot's journalistic processes and are very thankful that they took the time to review NS2. Many critics will not touch smaller indie games with a ten-foot barge pole," Jeremy told me. He said they've reached out to Metacritic for an explanation, but they haven't yet heard back. [Update: After the publication of this piece, Metacritic's Doyle sent me a note to say he had offered to get on the phone with Jeremy, but that Jeremy never got back to him.]
"In general, it is extremely important that score aggregators reflect accurate and timely information about the reviews they are aggregating," he said. "Their scores are used by players, publishers, investors, other critics and even developers themselves to judge the success or failure of a product. Those scores can make or break dreams."
While Eric Neigher, GameSpot's original reviewer, was certainly entitled to give the game whatever score he felt was appropriate, that score was pulled. GameSpot has re-reviewed the game. Should the most important game score aggregator on the planet not update their listings to reflect that?
This isn't the first time that Neigher's reviews have come under fire. In 2010, the developers behind Monday Night Combat publicly questioned if he had played the game before writing a review for 1up. (I reached out to Neigher earlier today to see if he'd like to give his thoughts for this story, but I haven't yet heard back.)
And a glance through some of Neigher's old work shows some rather bizarre choices.
"And if you're all butt-hurt about not having the same stuff as the kids across the Pacific, I hear you, but please believe me when I say that if you allow that butt-hurtedness to prevent you from buying and playing this game, you fail at life and will never have sex. Yeah, I said it. Because it's true. Don't say I didn't warn you," he wrote in his review of Yakuza 3.
We'll continue to follow and update this story as we hear more.
Natural Selection 2 is the first ever game I've enjoyed watching more than I've enjoyed playing.
If that sounds like an insult, it's certainly not intended as one. Rather, read it as perhaps one of the highest compliments I could give. Natural Selection 2 is good stuff—but playing it is only half its purpose.
First, some background: Natural Selection 2 was and is the little big game that should have been impossible. The game is from Unknown Worlds, a tiny studio of just seven people who took on the task of creating a massive, fully functional, online multiplayer shooter and strategy game.
The gambit worked, and over 144,000 people picked up the game in its first week of being live. Though in this instance, "live" is a bit of a misnomer. The game came to life through extensive collaboration between the dev team and fans, many of whom paid for pre-order and beta access, then helped bring the game to life. It well and truly launched on Halloween, ten years to the day from the moment the original Natural Selection, a Half-Life mod, was published.
So, yes, the saga behind Natural Selection 2 is a good story—and yet as we've seen over and over, it takes more than just a fairy-tale narrative to make a good game. Happily, NS2 is more than just a story about a scrappy studio. It's a genuinely well-made, top-notch game. One that I am manifestly terrible at playing. But more about that in a moment.
Developer: Unknown Worlds
Release Date: October 31
Type of game: Online competitive PvP alien-shooter, marine-muncher, and RTS base-builder
What I played: About five hours worth of getting my butt kicked as both aliens and space marines, mixed in with match spectating
My Two Favorite Things
My Two Least-Favorite Things
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
NS2 is a multiplayer, online, competitive, team-based shooter, but with a couple of twists. Only one set of players in any given match is taking on the role of the ever-popular gun-toting space marine. The other team takes on the role of the aliens, trying to conquer the station by taking to its walls, ceilings, and access tunnels. Marines take their first-person view down the barrel of a rifle (or, in moments of desperation, behind an axe); aliens take theirs from inside a mouth. A big mouth. Full of sharp, pointy, nasty teeth.
What I am saying here is: the aliens are serious bastards. Play as them.
Despite the many differences between sharp teeth and rifles, both sides are in fact exceptionally well-balanced. Or at least, they can be. Team performance, as in any multiplayer game, depends entirely on the players taking part. NS2, though, doesn't just demand cooperation of its cannon fodder. Instead, it requires true leadership.
Each team has a commander. The role isn't pre-assigned; both the aliens and the marines have particular stations that a player can stand in. The player in control of the command station is the commander, and while everyone else in the game is playing a first-person shooter, the commander is playing a real-time strategy base-building game. The commander chooses which upgrades to research and which structures to build. Structures get built when marines or aliens go and construct them, and so the commander issues orders and delivers tactics that the team, ideally, then follows.
The commander, like any great general, really is the linchpin of the team. If he (and in every match I played, on either side, it was a he) knows what he's doing and can issue clear, direct, intelligent orders, then the team has a good chance at survival. If he doesn't know what he's doing, and dithers too long over constructing resource extractors or gives contradictory orders to his side, then the team is going to be a mess.
I had expected to run into some ego-driven tantrums over the role of commander, as I wove through servers and parties, but I never actually did. I am sure there must be some pissing matches going on, but it seems that players are keenly aware of the responsibilities of command (and the potential blame), and take the duties to heart. I did, however, encounter one match where command was bugged. The command center kept ejecting players serially—sometimes, in as little as 30 or 45 seconds. Unable to keep anyone issuing orders for more than a minute or two, the marines eventually ground to a halt and, despite having superior numbers and having made significant progress in the match so far, crumbled.
Between good shooting and smart, quick RTS elements, Natural Selection 2 is a genuinely good multiplayer experience. It's also, in all honesty, a game that I should probably not be playing. To all the strangers on the rookie-friendly servers who put up with my fumbling, thank you. I promise not to do it again.
Learning to play NS2 can be a challenge. I, personally, found it quite intimidating. I watched the beginning tutorial videos, as the game itself prompted me to do, but I simply don't learn very well from YouTube. Part of why I play games is because I tend to learn best by doing—all the informational videos in the world fly out of my head when confronted with an actual experience later down the line.
After the videos, I wandered a map in Explore Mode. This, too, was beneficial: I managed to gain familiarity with some of the landscape, and to learn what certain machines and nodes are, how things are built, how things are killed, and overall to make sure my grasp of the basic mechanics was sound. And yet even memorizing an empty map only does one so much good as compared to a full map full of skittering creatures swarming at you in three dimensions to eat your face.
All of which, then, brings me back to the joy of watching.
After one loss (which admittedly, I had only joined the server six minutes prior to), when thrown back into the lobby, I more or less hurled myself through the door marked "spectate" in despair. I needed a break, and neither the tutorials nor the hands-on experience had yet taught me what Natural Selection 2 was all about.
Some major gaming phenomena are just not on my natural list of likes. The rise of eSports, streaming gaming, and player-vs-player competition are all on that list. I've never understood why so many people might prefer to watch a livestream of some strangers play a game when they themselves could be playing instead.
Now, I understand. I had hoped that viewing a match as a spectator would give me a better grasp of how the game should ebb and flow—and it did. More than that, though, I began truly to enjoy watching games for their own sake.
Watching both sides duke it out, with access to the full game map, has the same sort of strange tenterhooks satisfaction as watching a horror film. I'd find myself thinking, "Aaaah! No! Don't go in there! Go the other way! THE OTHER WAY!" And when I watched one very, very good space marine dodge, weave, and survive his way through most of the base, only to walk face-first into a nest of aliens that had been left in waiting for him, I admit to shouting, "IT'S A TRAP!" aloud, to the confusion of all.
In the end, Natural Selection 2 is perhaps best described as a skeleton, or a scaffold. It's an excellent, stable frame on which to hang cooperation, teamwork, and competition. As a multiplayer game, the experience is exactly as good as a player's allies and enemies are. Strong teams, that join the game and work together to perfect and enhance their skills, could truly be a thing of beauty.
I know my limitations; as far as NS2 is concerned, I am not born to be a leader. It's a grunt's life for me, as I try my best to do what I'm told and find the correct room I've been ordered to go to without getting killed twice along the way. Lacking a team to play with as a unit, I'm probably best left on the sidelines... but I think I'll still be watching.
Natural Selection 2 came out last week, and the folks who made it have created this neat infographic to show off the performance of their new real-time-strategy/first-person-shooter hybrid.
Notably: between pre-orders and sales, more than 144,000 people now own the game. Not bad for an indie made by a studio of seven full-time staff.
Click the image above to expand the whole chart.
Natural Selection 2 is out. You can buy it right now. Given that it’s actually possible both purchase and play (!) a great many games, that might not seem like such a huge deal to you. But make no mistake: Unknown Worlds’ RTS/FPS buildy-chompy-shooty hybrid could’ve easily died on the vine. And it nearly did – over and over and over, for pretty much the entirety of its development cycle. Fortunately, the NS2 team has always had a secret weapon on its side: a community that is – by most definitions of the word – completely and rather terrifyingly insane. This is their story>.